Of all the nefarious practices in our little business, none is more inimical than a consumer shopping a website for price while extracting the vitally important technical expertise from a talented bootfitter.  It’s like eating a five-star meal, then walking out on the bill.  

According to my totally unscientific survey of hundreds of ski boot customers, the most common tales told from the boot bench – in no particular order – can be summarized thusly:

  • “My toes are touching the end pretty hard.” (This after informing each and every one of them that their toes will hit the front of the boot upon entry.)
  • “I think my current boots are around ten years old.” Skiers are rarely right on this point; their boots tend to be closer to 20 years old.
  • “My boots hurt so much I have to stop skiing after a few runs.” Yet you’ve clung to them for half your adult life. Oy.
  • “I used to ski as a kid but haven’t been for the last 20 years.” Reasons are all over the map, and are not all pandemic-related. Skiing is seeing a resurgence of returnees.
  • “My toes are being crushed! Like, bent in half!” Some people have zero tolerance for fit tension. They spend their life in flip-flops. They can only be fit in boots that don’t fit.
  • “I’m a size 8.” Thanks for the tip, but ski boots don’t reason in American sizing, or any other sizing but their own. Plus, the consumer’s self-assessment is frequently wrong.
  • “I’m looking for a comfortable boot.” Countless skiers are afraid of going to see the bootfitter as if we were in the business of extracting teeth or confessions. I’m not sure what they think other skiers ask for, but they want comfort. Well, duh.   
  • “My toes have fallen off my feet. This is insane! Get it OFF!” This is why skiers may end up in boots that are two sizes too big. You might as well try skiing in a pair of Crocs.

 But for all its foibles and pitfalls, person-to-person bootfitting is still the ONLY way to ensure a comfortable, conforming fit that will enable one to ski in control. Please understand that the primary goal of every single bootfit is comfort.  Any bootfitter who knows what he or she is doing aims for a level of comfort so serene that the boots never call attention to themselves, without compromising steering control. The notion that ski boots have to hurt, that’s it’s an intrinsic aspect of the sport, isn’t just uninformed; it’s idiotic.

 The reason I’m indulging in italics is because during the pandemic many people have become unaccustomed to, and leery of, person-to-person contact. It was to assuage such fears that I supported the adoption of a new set of bootfitting protocols (The Brave New World of Bootfitting) intended both to minimize the spread of Covid and reassure the skiing public that it was reasonably safe to visit their favorite specialty shop.

 As the season unfolded, skiers descended on ski shops like locusts on a corn field. The demand for condoned outdoor activities skyrocketed. It wasn’t just the core of lifelong, addicted skiers who showed up, but newbies and returnees also turned out, snapping up skis of every ilk as if they were narcotics on sale. (As it turns out, they are addicting, but that’s not the point here.)  

Racing in the Wrong Direction

 Not everyone rode the wave of enthusiasm for skiing into a specialty shop. Travel restrictions, the desire to minimize contact, convenience and, of course, cost, all contributed to a surge in online sales. My suspicions are that online sales have accelerated at a pace that outstrips the gains of brick-and-mortar operations. Pure conjecture on my part, but the growing importance of online sales is a phenomenon that I believe is no longer in doubt.

 As multitudes of my Dear Readers and Listeners know, this is the point in my weekly peroration where I wish you to pay close attention. I’m not some Luddite trying to smash the machinery of online sales, unaware that I’m battling a force of nature that cannot be defeated or even abated. Internet sales are going to proliferate no matter what words I marshal to mitigate them.  As a purveyor of Internet-based advice, I stand to benefit from this trendline, so it’s at best disingenuous of me to protest too much.

 But there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  Two lines, actually.

 You shouldn’t try to buy your boots online. Accurate bootfitting is incredibly nuanced, requiring detailed knowledge of every boot brand and model extant married to a basic understanding of foot and lower leg anatomy and biomechanics.  It’s possible, although extremely unlikely, that an online customer service rep or other self-styled expert has this knowledge or experience.

 Professional-grade bootfitting also requires that I see and feel your feet.  This, the online service provider cannot replicate. Even if the consumer can self-scan his/her feet and provide this info to the distant retailer, there’s still a lot of information that can and will fall through the fissures in this arrangement.

 The only way the e-tailer can close this information loophole is to ask the consumer to get it from a shop. Which brings us to the second, more insidious bit of line-crossing: defrauding a bootfitter and the shop where he labors by posing as a legitimate customer until the sought-after details have been divulged by dint of the bootfitter’s expertise and effort.  

 There may not be an active bootfitter in the country who hasn’t had a customer suddenly walk away from a bootfit on some pretext or another, or buy a boot and later return it due to implausible dissatisfactions. This might be a bold claim were it not that this practice has been going on for several seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that online shoppers were encouraged to engage in this scurrilous practice by online “experts.”

A Port in the Storm

But what if, heaven forefend, the skier’s only option it to buy at a distance? After all, great bootfitters are notoriously hard to find under the best of circumstances, let alone during a period of enforced travel restrictions.   You should go where I’ve been telling my Dear Readers and Listeners to go all along: the online incarnation of your favorite specialty shop. At least you’ll find at the other end of your connection a real expert, instead of someone posing as one.

What everyone reduced to shopping on the Internet is hoping to find is an authentic information source that has his or her best interests at heart. This spirit – which animates everything we do at Realskiers.com – is at the heart of what our Test Shops do every day.  I hope you’ll visit one soon, be it online or in-store.